Wu Changlu: spread­ing the sound of

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

When Wu Changlu was 9 years old liv­ing in a small city in Jiangsu prov­ince, her teacher took two tal­ented young stu­dents to the pres­ti­gious Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic to try their luck on a mu­sic ca­reer.

As an af­ter­thought at the last minute, Wu was asked to go too.

With­out any prepa­ra­tion, Wu played a sim­ple folk tune Li­uyang River on the pipa, a piece for be­gin­ners, while other chil­dren played much more so­phis­ti­cated mu­sic to show off their tal­ents.

To her as­ton­ish­ment, she was picked. “This girl ex­hib­ited good mu­si­cal sense,” said the school’s pipa mas­ter.

So started Wu on a life­long path of mu­sic.

That was in 1978, when uni­ver­si­ties were re­sum­ing ad­mis­sions af­ter a pro­longed break dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. Com­pe­ti­tion was fierce for art schools.

“Only 41 stu­dents were ad­mit­ted from thou­sands of can­di­dates,” Wu said. “Each ad­mit­ted stu­dent had to go through a lengthy process and be per­son­ally ap­proved by the Min­is­ter of Cul­ture in Beijing. I was given a stipend of 3,000 yuan ($466.7) a year, plus free tu­ition and lodg­ing. That money was much more than the av­er­age an­nual salary at the time, when most peo­ple made less than 100 yuan a month.

Wu spent more than 10 years learn­ing mu­sic be­fore she grad­u­ated from the con­ser­va­tory. “I am very grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity. It was free, we were well pro­vided for, and we had the best pro­fes­sors. We could play which­ever in­stru­ment we fan­cied,” said Wu.

Wu’s pipa prac­tice at a ten­der age was cap­tured in the film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, which won the 1980 Acad­emy Award for Best Doc­u­men­tary Fea­ture. To­ward the end of her stud­ies at the con­ser­va­tory, Wu of­ten shared the stage with the pro­fes­sors at var­i­ous events.

Fresh out of school in the early 1990s, Wu went to the Univer­sity of Hous­ton to study pi­ano.

“It was like an­other win­dow was opened for me,” she said. “I learned more about mu­sic history, its back­ground, and its mean­ing. On Chopin alone I had read more than 40 books. In China, the fo­cus was mostly on tech­nique alone. The train­ing at UH ex­panded my hori­zons, in­te­grated what I know about mu­sic and deep­ened my un­der­sGengding of mu­sic.”

The pipa has al­ways been Wu’s pas­sion, but it was not so well­re­ceived in Hous­ton.

“I re­mem­ber when I first came to Hous­ton, the com­mu­nity was or­ga­niz­ing a con­cert at Rice Univer­sity. Some­one sug­gested invit­ing me to play the pipa. How­ever, one or­ga­nizer com­mented: ‘This is a high-class con­cert and we would not want a pipa there.’ It’s un­be­liev­able that the pipa was viewed as a low-class in­stru­ment,” said Wu.

In 1995, Wu par­tic­i­pated in the Ge­orge Fore­man In­ter­na­tional Mu­si­cal Tal­ent Show­case in Hous­ton. She won top prize on the pipa and per­formed at the Wortham The­atre for an au­di­ence of more than 2,000. “Many of them were hear­ing the pipa for the first time. I felt so proud to in­tro­duce this tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ment to Hous­ton,” said Wu.

When she grad­u­ated from UH, her hus­band Max Zhang wanted to buy her a new car. She asked for his fi­nan­cial sup­port to hold a solo pipa con­cert as a grad­u­a­tion gift in­stead.

With mem­bers of Hous­ton Symphony as ac­com­pa­nists, Wu’s pipa con­cert in 1996 at UH turned out to be a huge suc­cess. “We made a few thou­sand dol­lars, which we do­nated to the Chi­nese Civic Cen­ter,” said Wu.

Wu has of­ten ap­peared on lo­cal TV sta­tions and events to pro­mote the pipa and other tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­stru­ments. In 2003, when then-Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was meet­ing with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Jiang Zemin in Col­lege Sta­tion, Wu was the only Chi­nese mu­si­cian in­vited to play at the sum­mit.

“I played the pipa as well as the guzhen, all Chi­nese in­stru­ments,” said Wu.

Wu is pleased with how the pipa is so well-re­ceived now in Hous­ton. In 2008, she was in­vited by the Fort Bend Symphony to play a pipa con­certo. This year, her per­for­mance of the pipa con­certo was fea­tured in three con­certs of the Hous­ton Symphony. All of the pieces were ar­ranged by Wu her­self.

Work­ing with young peo­ple is an­other pur­suit Wu has un­der­taken to pro­mote Chi­nese tra­di­tional in­stru­ments. Since 1996, she has worked with the na­tional Young Au­di­ence pro­gram. In 2012, she founded the North Amer­i­can Youth Chi­nese Orchestra (NAYCO), teach­ing young peo­ple var­i­ous Chi­nese in­stru­ments.

In three short years, NAYCO has gained recog­ni­tion in Hous­ton. In Jan 2015 when the Hous­ton Symphony hosted the For­bid­den City Cham­ber Orchestra, a world-class ensem­ble from Beijing, NAYCO had a solid two-hour sem­i­nar with the mas­ters, who, in turn, were im­pressed by the young peo­ple’s tal­ent.

The Hous­ton Symphony has in­vited NAYCO to join its Mu­sic Day event for the last two years. NAYCO also was in­vited to open a con­cert fea­tur­ing pi­anist Lang Lang by the Hous­ton Symphony ear­lier this year.

MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

Pipa vir­tu­oso Wu Changlu.

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